The Danganronpa franchise, spearheaded by creator Kazutaka Kodaka, has endured an afterlife far beyond its humble origins as a PSP murder investigation and school life simulator run by a maniacal two-tone bear. It shows what good writing and character design can get you. Characters like Junko Enoshima are perhaps more recognisable today for their place in TikTok cosplay circles and Tumblr discussions than for the games they came from.
The power of online fandom is intertwined with Danganronpa’s legacy, where even minor characters are beloved and memorable because of how clearly-defined their personalities and motives are from visuals alone. As a result, a dedicated fan base latched onto the game’s unique psycho-philosophical clash of hope and despair. Even now he’s left the series behind to found Too Kyo games with his good friend, and fellow cult creator, Kotaro Uchikoshi, experiences like Death Come True and World’s End Club, while of mixed quality, retain Kodaka signature violent rumination on justice.
Still, as those are smaller experiences, it’s hard not to view Master Detective Archives: Rain Code as the return of Kodaka, his first major release since the end of the Danganronpa trilogy in 2017. Rather than throwing a bunch of unhinged schoolkids into a tightly-controlled environment where their only means of escape is the successful murder of their friends, we’re in for a fantasy-mystery adventure. This is a game that blends Ace Attorney’s investigative intrigue with Persona-esque Mystery Labyrinths, all channeled through the stylistic filter of the creator’s iconic hit franchise.
Sounds wonderful, right? Well, mostly.
In terms of setting and characters, everything is executed to near-perfection. Dropped into the world rather suddenly as the amnesiac detective Yuma Kokohead, we soon board a train on our way to the rain-soaked neon-lit dystopian city of Kanai Ward. This is an autonomous zone, free from government interference and run by the shady Amaterasu Corporation. Yuma is one of many so-called Master Detectives sent to uncover Kanai Ward’s Ultimate Secret by the World Detective Organization, picking it apart from the inside with the hope of exposing and liberating the city from oligarch control.
As you board the Amaterasu Express to Kanai Ward, the strong character work of Kodaka instantly bursts through the screen. It feels like a glimpse into the halls of MCM Comic Con for at least the next 12 months. Each character stands out both for their signature looks, crafted by returning character designer Rui Komatsuzaki, and for their bizarre, literal names tied to their personality or Forte – an ability detectives possess that assists in their investigation.
The villainous head of the Peacekeepers in Kanai Ward? Yomi Hellsmile. A hotheaded rascal and master of disguise? Desuhiko Thunderbolt. A money-driven results-focused investigator who can revive the memories of the moment a murder was discovered? Halara Nightmare. You get the idea.
Even the head of your organization is merely called Number One. Yet despite the sheer number of characters you meet on your adventure, each looks and feels both distinct and memorable, whether they’re given a chapter or a moment in the spotlight or relegated to sideshows. Even minor characters remained popular with fans years after Danganronpa’s release, and it’s hard not to feel the same will occur here when each is imbued with such personality that carries, whether they’re alive, present… or dead.
Because yes, Rain Code is a murder-mystery game amidst it all, and in uncovering the truth of Kanai Ward’s secrets you inevitably have to put those detective skills to the test. This is where Shinigami comes in, serving as your assistant and Forte. Much of the game’s story consists of Yuma solving various murder cases, investigating crime scenes until you gain the knowledge needed to uncover the truth in the Mystery Labyrinth. These are mind palaces of trickery and illusion, where clues discovered become the keys to finding the culprit. In return for a beautiful death god’s support in discovering the truth, the cost is the life of the convicted murderer.
With the freedom to explore through Kanai Ward, and with many cases relying on historical events and unresolved cases, a lot of the stories take on a structure more reminiscent of Phoenix Wright’s investigations in Ace Attorney than Kodaka’s previous titles. You interrogate witnesses, search for clues, all in order to take them to trial in flashy Labyrinths where truth serves as the judge. These sequences are more involved than simply picking holes in testimony (although you will have to do this), as Shinigami will slice your neck to reveal leading questions towards a solution, play pop-up pirate in a bikini for hidden word games, and puke up solution keys.
It all comes together as a flashy and exciting affair, elevated by the characters who lead it. One early case finds Yuma working with Halara, and their straight-talking despairing dynamic, combined with the ire Halara receives from Shinigami, leads to more than a few laughs.
It’s when we go beyond these characters that the story and interactions, as interesting as they may have the potential to be, begin to fall apart. With a full city to explore freely that’s far larger than any enclosed school or deserted island, it’s a shame there’s so little to do within it. You can take on requests from other residents, but they rarely amount to little more than fetch quests running aimlessly around the map. Rewards come in the form of Detective Points that in theory can increase your health and support for Mystery Labyrinths, but points feel so unnecessary I didn’t use them for support even once.
This is before touching on the reality that this is an experience that never feels willing to take a step beyond its comfort zone to fully explore its central thesis. Repeatedly, the game talks about the meaning of justice against the backdrop of the corruption of Amaterasu Corporation, and the callousness of the punishment of death for guilty parties that comes with Shinigami’s gift/curse. Yet this theme never truly develops.
‘Justice is a matter of opinion. With enough conviction, anything can be considered justice’, decries Yuma when faced with the Peacekeepers, while another character drops the seminal quote from LE Modesitt Jr. that ‘justice is an ideal, and law is a tool’. We see the struggle of the everyman throughout the game through the imagery and language used: a world where money and power are the ultimate deciders, one repeatedly decried for its coverups and the willingness of the Peacekeepers and Amaterasu Corporation to create greater evil in order to retain their seat at the table. Elsewhere, the game thrusts imagery of a raised fist of worker solidarity against the ruling class, used to parallel the exploitation of Kanai Ward by Amaterasu Corp.
Draped in the neon aesthetics of a cyberpunk dystopia, the game teases a broader discussion on the relationship between justice and the rule of law, and how each can be abused or co-opted. Again, it never truly materializes.
For much of our adventure this is a game uncertain about what justice should be, throwing out ideas not as a way of making the reader consider what it means to seek and secure a just outcome, but merely as a passing comment. There are some obvious critiques to the death penalty embedded in Shinigami’s forced execution of guilty parties, yet the game otherwise feels disinterested in punishment’s place within a system of justice and how such justice can be long-lasting and fulfilled. It’s not that the game has never considered these ideas: they’re all here. But without exploring them beyond a namedrop, it leaves events beyond the flashy exterior feeling distant and cold.
That’s when other niggles begin to seep in: investigations take a tad too long and tend to feel like bothersome fetch quests for one last clue by the end. And what about that smear of vaseline across our viewfinder into this world when removing our Nintendo Switch from the dock to take the game on the move?
I can’t help but wish the game did more with the rich setting and cast it laid before us, especially since Kodaka has shown himself capable of doing so in the past. Considering the popularity of the director and his work, alongside the memorable nature of its characters and setpieces, I can almost guarantee this won’t be the last we see of this world – even ignoring the planned DLC to release in the coming months. Maybe these next attempts will help fix some of these flaws.
A fan of Danganronpa is going to enjoy their time with Rain Code. I’m a fan and I had fun in this world. With such a great array of characters and a unique setting such as Kanai Ward, how couldn’t I enjoy it? It may not bring new audiences to the director’s work, but depending on what circles you like to frequent online, this will be the only game you hear about for the rest of the summer.
Cosplay TikTok, meet your latest obsession.